Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Oft-quoted "Speech" of Chief Seattle a Myth

By Andy Kerr

Column #25 - Go to next column

Length: 742 words

First published: 03 July 1997, Wallowa County Chieftain

In testimony and on television and from the mouths of both presidents and plebes, the stirring and immortal words of Chief Seattle have been invoked in statements and debate about protecting our environment. The supposed speech/letter compellingly and contemporaneously resonates on issues of pollution, endangered species and Earth stewardship. The letter closes with:

Continue to contaminate your bed and you will one night suffocate in your own waste. When the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses all tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone.

And what is to say good-bye to the swift and the hunt; the end of living and the beginning of survival.

Generations of people have been moved by the "speech." Chief Seattle societies have formed in Europe. The supposed remarks have been reprinted widely and authoritatively cited in serious books on environmental issues. Many teachers use the letter in environmental courses.

However, the Chief never said anything close to such sentiments.

Yes, Chief Seattle (more correctly Seathl) did give a speech in 1854 to Isaac Stevens, Pacific Northwest Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Dr. Henry Smith translated the speech from the original Lushotseed. Smith knew it to be special and that much was lost in his first oral translation. He supposedly visited the Chief many times in the following decades to get the words right in English. He published his translation in 1887 in the Seattle Sunday Star. According to Smith, the Chief spoke of his sadness about the grave injustice being visited upon the Indians by the European invaders and the absurdity, in the Chief's view, of claiming land as one's own and of not respecting ancestral ground.

It was in the Victorian oratorical style of the time, and was soon forgotten. Professor William Arrowsmith, who taught classic literature at the University of Texas, came across the Smith version and modernized it in Arion in 1969. He changed it to reflect the protest-style of the 1960s. On the first Earth Day in 1970, Arrowsmith read his modified text before a large crowd.

In that crowd was Ted Perry, a professor of film, who had been retained by the Southern Baptist Television Commission to draft a script for a film about pollution and the plight of the Earth, called Home.

In a third execution of literary license, Smith turned it into a speech about poisoning the planet and human indifference to it. Perry's concept was to transport Chief Seattle into the modern world and imagine what he would say. Sort of a reverse of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

The fourth and most fatal—but certainly not final—literary licentiousness was that the Southern Baptists represented the speech as Chief Seathl's own words, rather than a modern text inspired by the original words of the chief.

After Home was televised, 18,000 people wrote for copies of the speech and the myth was born. It was soon reprinted in Environmental Action which claimed it to be a letter to the Great White Father Franklin Pierce. Numerous other publications and institutions followed with their own versions, including a popular children's book.

Despite a 1992 front page New York Times story that the immensely popular and oft-cited words never came out of the Chief's mouth, the myth continues to grow. The Washington State Librarian gets numerous inquiries and has issued a pamphlet stating the facts.

Perry's version has become a canon of environmental thought. It is damn fine rhetoric that does what it is supposed to do: move the listener. That so many have been inspired is testimony to the power of its words and sentiment. Wouldn't it have been just perfect if the Chief had said it? But he didn't.

Despite the misattribution, the words do eloquently address the modern state of the Earth. They seem even more persuasive to have come from a prescient Native American Chief over a century before.

Despite the efforts of many—including Smith—to kill the myth, it lives on and won't likely die anytime soon.

The threats to the planet, and to the humans and other species that inhabit it, are serious enough that environmentalists should speak in their own voice. We don't need to quote a mythical film version of events to make our points.

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